Napoleon's Irish Legion:
La Legion Irlandaise
1803 - 1815
by Virginia Medlen
Established on 31 August 1803, the Legion Irlandaise was originally created
in anticipation of an invasion of Ireland. The purpose was to establish
a core of trained Irish officers and NCOs who could raise the population
of Ireland in a war of liberation against the English rulers of
Ireland. By using Irish soldiers, Napoleon hoped to achieve three
important goals: (1) the invasion force would be viewed by the Irish
population as an army of liberation, rather than a foreign invader;
(2) a minimum number of French troops would be required for the
effort; and, (3) such an invasion, if properly carried out, would
tie up a maximum number of English troops for years to come, and
could result in the English suing for peace.
However, with the continuing superiority of the British fleet, an
invasion of England became more unlikely. The dream of an Irish
invasion died with the British victory over the combined French
and Spanish Fleets off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. With Austria and
Russia preparing to renew the struggle for control of central Europe,
Napoleon's attention turned to the east.
The Legion becomes a Regiment
As the need for manpower for the Empire increased, the decision was
made to expand the Irish Legion from a battalion sized unit into
a regiment. Men were recruited first from Irish and Scottish Jacobite
expatriates, whose families had been forced to flee following failed
revolts. Prisoner of war camps were also a good source of soldiers.
Recruiters for the Legion found that Irish Sailors who had been
taken by press gangs, and forced into the British Navy before their
capture, had no loyalty to King George. Once these men were taught
the basic soldier skills, they proved good soldiers and hard fighters.
Other men for the Legion came from German and Polish recruits --
forming a truly European force. While commands were given in French,
the troops and officers spoke to each other in English or in their
Uniforms and Equipment
The Irish wore a standard pattern light infantry uniform. Their
coatees were a distinctive green with yellow collar, lapels, cuffs,
turnbacks, and piping, and were worn with white pantaloons and waistcoats.
Carabiniers had red shako cords and plume, red epaulettes, and red
grenade on turnbacks. Voltiguers had green shako cords, green tipped
yellow plumes, green epaulettes with yellow crescent, and green
horn on turnbacks. Chasseurs had white shako cords, green plume,
green piped yellow shoulder straps, green horn on turnbacks. Buttons
were gold for officers and brass for other ranks. The remaining
items of uniform and equipment were standard light infantry issue.
The Regiment received its own flag and an eagle. The flag bore on
one side a large gold harp, with the motto: "L'INDEPENDENCE
D'IRLANDE". On the other side was the inscription: "NAPOLEON EMPEREUR
DES FRANCAIS A LA LEGION IRLANDAISE".
The First Battalion in Holland
In the fall of 1807, the Irish were ordered out for duty. The First
Battalion of the Irish Regiment was sent to Walcheren Island, in
the mouth of the Scheldt River, to bolster the forces defending
the naval base at Antwerp. Just as the British troops that came
after them, the soldiers stationed at Walcheren suffered the drastic
effects of "Walcheren fever," a form of malaria.
In the spring of 1809, the Irish Regiment had a new official name
-- the 3d Regiment Etranger (Irlandaise). However, most official
correspondence continued to refer to them as the Regiment Irlandaise.
On July 30th of that year, the First Battalion received its baptism
of fire in battle when English forces landed on Walcheren Island.
After a spirited defense, the vastly outnumbered French forces,
including the Regiment Irlandaise, retreated into Flushing.
On August 1, The English attacked all along the perimeter outside
Flushing. The Irish suffered heavy casualties, but performed well
and held their assigned position. The Irish regiment remained in
an advanced position from the 3d to the 13th of August, and were
engaged in almost daily skirmishes.
The English were preparing positions and bringing up siege guns.
The expected bombardment began at noon on 13 August. At 5 pm the
enemy infantry attacked all of the advanced posts. Although elements
of the other regiments sought to retreat into the city, the Irish
held firm and occupied their original position at the end of the
day. In the fighting, the acting Commander of the 1st Battalion,
Captain William Lawless, was struck below the right eye by a musket
ball that lodged below his ear. This serious wound forced him to
seek medical attention, and he was carried into the town.
By the evening of the 14th of August, after a terrible bombardment
which dismounted many of the town's guns and nearly exploded the
powder magazine, it was apparent that further resistance was futile.
A truce was called to discuss terms for surrender. On the 15th,
the French General surrendered, and the entire garrison of Flushing
were made prisoner and were transported to England where the men
remained until the end of the war.
However, a small number of men managed to escape. Among them were
Captain Lawless and Lt. Terrence O'Reilly, both officers of the
Irish Regiment. Following the surrender, Lawless made his way to
the home of Dr. Mokey. The doctor, who was a friend of Lawless,
cared for his wound and hid him when the English occupied the city.
Despite the seriousness of Lawless's wound, he and O'Reilly, who
joined him after the surrender, decided to attempt an escape from
Flushing by boat. Lawless carried with him the eagle of the Regiment
Irlandaise, which he had guarded dearly since the surrender of Flushing,
determined that it would not fall into the hands of the English.
Their plan was to cross the West Scheldt to French held territory.
However, the vigilance of the English blockade forced them to turn
back before they were halfway across, and they again went into hiding.
First at Dr. Mokey's, then in a farmhouse outside Flushing, and
finally back in the city, the two Irish Officers evaded the enemy
for more than 6 weeks. Finally, they were able to hire an open boat
that was used for transporting vegetables and other foodstuffs and
make good their escape.
After a hearty welcome from Marshall Bessieres at Antwerp, Lawless
was sent on to Paris where he was received by the Emperor himself.
Not only was he the highest ranking officer to escape from Flushing,
but he had saved the Regiment's Eagle, an act which greatly pleased
Napoleon. For this feat, Lawless was given the Legion of Honor,
promoted to Chef de Battalion and given command of the First Battalion
of the Irish Regiment which was being reformed at Landau. Lieutenant
O'Reilly, likewise, received the Legion of Honor and was promoted
The Second Battalion in Spain
The second battalion proved no less valiant than the first. The
first 800 men of the second battalion joined Marshall Murat's Army
in Spain in the fall of 1807. In the Spring of 1808, Murat marched
into Madrid, starting a war which was to last until 1813, and was
later called "The Peninsular War." The Irish Regiment was camped
outside of Madrid on May 2, 1808 when the inhabitants of that city
rose up against the French. The Irish were among the French troops
used to suppress the revolt. Subsequently, the Irish Regiment garrisoned
Burgos, and were engaged in constructing a fort for the protection
of the town, performing escort duties, patrols, and skirmishing
with Spanish Guerrillas.
In March of 1810, the Second Battalion was assigned to Junot's 8th
Corps of the Army of Portugal. The Second Battalion's first action
was the siege of Astorga, a base for supplies and operations of
the Spanish forces in the Northwest. The capture of Astorga would
secure the right flank and rear of the Army of Portugal. Captain
John Allen's company of voltigeurs formed a part of the assault
battalion. At 5 pm, on April 21st, Captain Allen led the Irish over
the tops of the trenches, across open ground under heavy fire, and
into the breach. The Irish voltigeurs occupied a house just behind
the rampart, and held their position throughout the night. The remaining
Irish troops were also heavily engaged. In the morning, the Spanish
surrendered. The Irish brought great honor upon themselves, but
also suffered heavy casualties.
The battalion's adjutant major and surgeon were wounded. Every company
had lost men killed and wounded while carrying ladders to the breach.
Captain Allen's drummer, although he lost both of his legs, continued
to beat the charge. For this, he received the Legion of Honor. Captain
Allen, who led the troops into the breach, and Lieutenant Perry,
who was wounded while carrying a ladder to the breach, were both
rewarded with the Legion of Honor. Elements of the Irish Regiment
were ordered to escort the Spanish prisoners to Valladolid. The
Irish Regiment also served with honor in the seige of Almeida, the
invasion of Portugal, including the Battle of Bussaco (September
27, 1810), and Fuentes de Onoro (1811). Ordered back to France,
on December 25, 1811, the 120 officers and sergeants, corporals
and drummers stood inspection for the last time in Spain, bidding
a farewell to the privates, who were incorporated into another regiment.
After four years in Spain and Portugal, the Second Battalion of
the Irish Regiment arrived at the new Regimental Depot at Bois-le-Duc
in southern Holland on April 11, 1812.
The Campaigns of 1813-14
The Irish Regiment remained in southern Holland until February of 1813,
fortunately missing the abortive campaign in Russia. As a battle-ready
Regiment, the Irish were ordered east to fight the Russians. They
joined Prince Eugene De Beauharnais' forces on the west bank of
the Elbe-Saale line, where they were outnumbered by the Russian
and Prussian armies by 2:1. On arrival, the Irish were immediately
posted north to Stendal to guard against a crossing of the Elbe
by the Russians. On March 20, now-Colonel William Lawless, commanding
the Irish Regiment, drove an enemy raiding party back across the
elbe at Werben. On the 24th, the Regiment played an important role
in capturing Seehausen. The Regiment was on detached duty, and did
not participate in the Battle of Lutzen, but received orders and
rejoined on the morning of 21 May at the Battle of Bautzen. At dawn
on the 26th, the Irish Regiment was led by Napoleon against the
enemy, whom they drove several miles to the east. This was the first
time the Irish had been directly under the orders, and the eyes,
of Napoleon. As a reward, the Irish Regiment was given the honor
of posting guard in the town of Lignitz for Napoleon until the Imperial
Guard arrived and relieved them. Shortly thereafter, a temporary
armistice was agreed to.
Hostilities resumed in August. The first serious fighting took place
in Silesia. The Irish Regiment formed a part of General Vachereau's
Brigade, which had neither artillery nor cavalry support. The enemy
cavalry attacked Vachereau's brigade, attempting to break the squares.
When they were repulsed, the enemy artillery fired grapeshot and
cannonballs into the square of the Irish Regiment. The Irish closed
ranks each time, so that the enemy cavalry were never able to exploit
the effect of the casualties. Finally, the Irish were ordered to
retire to a wooded area. The survivors moved back in good order,
stopping every few minutes to fire a volley into the enemy cavalry.
During this withdrawal, Lieutenant August St. Leger saved the life
of General Vachereau. The General's Horse had been killed under
him while he was giving orders from the center of the Irish Square,
and he had to fall back on foot. Enemy cavalry attacked just as
they reached a farmyard that was surrounded by a stone wall. St.
Leger threw Vachereau over the wall into the farmyard, and quickly
followed. As a result, both escaped injury. However, another officer
was wounded by a sabre stroke before he could reach the safety of
the farmyard. This was the bloodiest day suffered by the Regiment:
over 300 of its men were killed or wounded. Two officers were killed,
and ten officers wounded.
On August 21, the Irish Regiment led Lauriston's 5th Corps into
battle. Although the Regiment did not suffer heavy casualties on
this occasion, Colonel Lawless was struck on the leg by a cannonball
while leading the Regiment. He was carried on a door by 6 grenadiers
back to the village that was serving as Napoleon's field headquarters,
and the Emperor ordered his personal surgeon, Baron Dominique-Jean
Larrey to attend to his wound. The limb was too badly damaged to
save, and was amputated. Lawless returned to France to recuperate.
On the 24th of August, General Puthod was so pleased with the performance
of the Officers and Men of the Irish Regiment, that he recommended
eleven of its members for the Legion of Honor, and other Officers
for promotion. All of these recommendations were supported by General
On the 27th of August, Puthod's division lost contact with the rest
of the army during a retreat. By the afternoon of August 29th, the
Division was surrounded by an enemy army of overwhelming superiority,
with the Bober River at its back. When its ammunition was expended,
the enemy attacked and overran Puthod's position. Three officers
of the Irish Regiment were captured; the remainder swam across the
Bober to the opposite shore. One of those officers, Colonel Ware,
the acting commander, saved the Regimental Eagle when he swam across
the Bober. The Irish Regiment no longer existed as a fighting unit.
Out of the 2,000 men who had joined the Grande Armee eight months
earlier, only 117 were left. The survivors were ordered back to
their depot at Bois-Le-Duc.
Back at the depot, the Regiment again began recruiting among the
prisoners of war to fill their ranks. In 1814, the under strength
regiment garrisoned Antwerp until the seige was ended with the abdication
The Regiment was then ordered to Lille, the new regimental depot,
and then on to Avesnes to take up garrison duties. The Irish Regiment
was reorganized by the Bourbon government in 1814. As a part of
the reorganization, the Regiment lost its distinctive green uniform,
which was replaced with an unpopular sky blue uniform.
The Hundred Days
During the Hundred Days, the Officers of the Irish Regiment were
informed by their Colonel that Louis XVIII was on his way to the
Belgian Coast, and wanted to know what their feelings were. Major
Ware answered for the regiment when he said: "Colonel, give your
orders and they will be executed. If the King wants an escort to
the frontiers, he may rely on the regiment doing its duty. But we
Irish patriots will never go to the enemy's camp, to fight against
France, our adopted country."
On the 26th of March, the Regiment swore allegiance to Napoleon.
The Regiment was, once again, allowed to add the name "Irish" to
its title, but its request to resume its Green Uniform was not deemed
important enough to act upon at the time.
The Irish Regiment did not participate in the Waterloo campaign.
Upon the return of Louis XVIII, the Regiment once again swore allegiance
to the Bourbons. The royalists returned to Paris in a vengeful mood,
however, and the Regiment was officially disbanded on 28 September
1815 at Montreuil-sur-mer. The Officers were discharged, although
most desperately wished to remain on active duty. The non-commissioned
officers and soldiers of the Irish Regiment, who did not request
a discharge, were sent to Toulon where a Royal Foreign Regiment
was being formed. Finally, all regimental property containing imperial
markings were ordered destroyed. As a result, the flags of the 2d
and 3d Battalions were burned, and the Regimental Eagle destroyed.
Commandants/Colonels of the Irish Regiment<
Bernard MacSheehy December 1803 to September 1804
Antoine Pettrezoli September 1804 to 1 August 1809
Daniel O'Meara August 1809 to May 1810
William Lawless 8 February 1812 to 21 August 1813
John F. Mahony 21 August 1813 to April 1815
April 1815 to 28 September 1815
For more information on the history of the Regiment Irlandais, consult the following references:<
Memoirs of Miles Byrne, Miles Byrne (Irish University Press 1972).
Napoleon's Irish Legion, John G. Gallaher (Southern Illinois University Press, 1993).
The Wild Geese: The Irish Brigades of France and Spain, Mark G. McLaughlin (Osprey 1980).
Histoire des Troupes Etrangeres au service de la France, Eugene Fieffe (Dumaine, 1854).
The Campaigns of Napoleon, |David Chandler (MacMillan Co. 1966).
The late Virginia Medlen was a noted collector of militaria and a director of The Napoleonic Alliance.
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